A Hero: A convict’s 48 hours descent into the abyss
Asghar Farhadi’s new picture, titled A Hero, marks the writer/director’s comeback to his native land after his Spanish sojourn working on Everybody Knows (2018).
The film, a French-Iranian co-production, won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (6-17 July 2021), ex aequo with Juho Kuosmanen’s drama Compartment No. 6.
Farhadi stages this feature in Shiraz, one of Southern Iran’s largest cities, and follows a divorced father, called Rahim (played by Amir Jadidi), who is serving time for an unpaid debt and is on leave for two days, during which he plans to convince his creditor Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh) to withdraw his complaint against the payment of the sum.
A Hero remains an imperfect tale, bolstering a strong message – although not particularly novel – about the flaws of Iranian society and the vacuity of the social media sphere
For Rahim, this is also a great occasion to reunite with his only child (Saleh Karimai), his secret partner Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust) and the rest of his family. Unexpectedly, Farkhondeh finds a handbag with 17 gold coins, which could help Rahim to pay most of the 150,000 tomans he owes Bahram.
However, as the value of gold keeps fluctuating and on that day it is particularly low, Rahim decides to locate the legitimate owner by spreading fliers with the prison’s phone number. Later on, the coins are returned to a woman through his sister, while the authorities find out Rahim’s surprising gesture of integrity. They immediately praise his actions and invite him to speak on TV.
In the blink of an eye, Rahim becomes a popular hero and a bright example of how Iran can re-integrate prisoners back into society. Many opportunities await Rahim, including a conspicuous donation and the prospect of a new job that would help him to repay his debt.
Despite a slow-paced set-up, the premise is engaging enough and gradually introduces the film’s main conflict. On the one hand, we see Rahim trying to take advantage of the situation and striving for a fresh start, supported by the authorities and the charities for their own return of image. On the other hand, we see the concerns of his creditor, who suspects that all of this is part of a huge scam organised by Rahim, demands the full payment of the sum (ideally with interests) and constantly reminds everyone “who’s who”.
Notably, Tanabandeh’s interpretation is the most convincing of the whole piece. He brilliantly embodies a blunt, determined man, who alternates sarcasm, reticence and stoic looks to challenge his debtor and whoever is willing to watch his back.
Predictably, things do not turn out as expected and Rahim enters a puzzling downward spiral. As soon as he is requested to find the coins’ owner so that she can testify the veracity of the story before hiring him, Rahim begins to make a wrong choice after another.
As desperation mounts and time runs out, the man asks Farkhondeh to play the part of the unknown woman (the real witness seems nowhere to be found) and, later, to exploit – very hesitantly, in truth – his child’s stutter to recover the public opinion’s lost trust.
Rahim’s machinations disempower the empathic bond previously built up with the viewers, who may wonder why this character is so clumsy and stubborn, knowing that there are few chances to change things and inaction may be a safer path to take.
In the second part of the film, Farhadi criticises the role of social media in contributing to distort our perception of reality. The message is loud and clear; in just two days, Rahim, an Everyman out of jail becomes the symbol of a fair, supportive society, an unreliable source, a public disappointment and an abuser of the worst kind.
Another aspect clearly criticised through this picture is Iran’s controversial judicial system, heavily based on pardon and retribution. Paradoxically, if a person owes some money or kills a member of another family, the creditors or the victims may decide to forgive the perpetrator and grant his prison release. Unsurprisingly, this system feeds complex dynamics of corruption, anger and revenge.
Despite the great technical quality and the excellent acting performances, the ending lacks punch and brings to a close the parable of a man who seems to be inexorably drowning as soon as the first doubts on his goodwill emerge. Most probably, Rahim’s passivity is intentional but ultimately ends up killing part of the viewers’ curiosity and disengage them from the man’s convoluted vicissitudes.
In conclusion, A Hero remains an imperfect tale, bolstering a strong message – although not particularly novel – about the flaws of Iranian society and the vacuity of the social media sphere. In other words, Farhadi reminds us that anyone can get Andy Warhol’s notorious “15 minutes of fame” and end up into a meat grinder. It is a simple, honest claim that could have benefited from a more honed writing and a more convincing development of the lead character.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland.
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni